U.S. 5th Fleet Plans Force of 100 Unmanned Vessels in Middle East

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Published Feb 21, 2022 9:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

Building on the success of a recent multinational drone exercise, U.S. 5th Fleet has announced that it plans to launch a joint force of unmanned surface and subsurface vessels in conjunction with U.S. allies in the Middle East. The 100-strong force of unmanned vessels will be used for patrol and surveillance tasks.

“By using unmanned systems, we can just simply see more. They’re high-reliability and remove the human factor,” U.S. 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper told AP. His command intends to have the drone fleet operational by mid-2023, and it would primarily be tasked with monitoring the movements of Iran and its proxy forces.

Cooper's announcement follows the conclusion of 5th Fleet's International Maritime Exercise 2022, the largest unmanned exercise in the world. More than 80 unmanned systems from 10 nations participated in the maneuvers, which concluded on February 17. 

IMX 2022 was the culmination of a series of trials run by 5th Fleet's Task Force 59, an early-adopter unit tasked with testing out multiple small drone systems for ISR and patrol tasks in the Persian Gulf. Among other trials, the task force has tested out Mantas T-12 unmanned surface vessels in a manned-unmanned teaming role alongside U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and Bahrain Defense Force vessels.

It has also tested out a militarized version of the popular Saildrone, an ultra-long-endurance research drone. “The initial Saildrone assessment phase at sea in the Gulf of Aqaba has exceeded our expectations,” said Cmdr. Thomas McAndrew, the deputy commander of Task Force 59, 5th Fleet's unmanned-vessel test unit. “We are applying the results and rapidly expanding operations.”

Unmanned systems are a critical part of the U.S. Navy's plans for future capabilities. Its long-range shipbuilding plan call for a force of about 150 (larger) unmanned vessels, or about 30 percent of a planned fleet of 500 ships.